The Opals defensive identity is taking shape
The Opals want to get back to challenging for medals at major tournaments and it all starts with defence. On Thursday night, Brazil felt the full force of what Australia is building.
Image credit: FIBA
The Opals absolutely suffocated Brazil from the first tip in their opening FIBA Women’s World Cup qualifying game in Serbia, displaying a defensive toughness that that every Australian basketball fan could be proud of.
It was far from a perfect display from the Opals, highlighted by 20 turnovers, many of which were careless, but after a disastrous Olympic campaign in Tokyo, the signs were there that the Opals are tracking in the right direction and can turn things around quickly after handling business against Brazil, 65-52.
It must be said that the inclusion of Sami Whitcomb is the biggest difference-maker compared to the Tokyo squad. Personally, I still can’t believe she wasn’t included as Sandy Brondello opted to go with Leilani Mitchell instead, but what’s done is done and all we can do now is look ahead.
Whitcomb was named as Opals captain for the qualifiers with Jenna O’Hea not making the trip to Serbia and it’s a title that fits the sharp-shooter perfectly. She’s uncompromising, demands respect with the way she plays, and as she showed in last year’s Asia Cup campaign, a great leader and mentor to the younger players.
As I wrote last week, Sandy Brondello preached defence as the calling card for the Opals and Brazil experienced the full force of the Opals delivering that defensive intensity.
“We want to be a defensive team first. The team is selected with that in mind – we’ve had a really good week with just getting that mindset back in and being aggressive. Just playing a bit more aggressive and making our defence create our offence.” Brondello said last week.
In what was one of the more incredible starts to a game I’ve seen in a long time, Brazil was held scoreless for the first six(!) minutes of action. It wasn’t just Brazil missing open shots, it was Australia forcing them into tough shots with manic defensive pressure.
After what transpired in Tokyo, it was a sight for sore eyes for Australian basketball fans. For so long, we’ve been accustomed to the Opals being a world powerhouse in major tournaments and playing a certain hard-nosed way. That grit was back on Thursday night.
Building a defensive identity is what will push the Opals back to the podium at major tournaments and Brondello would’ve loved what she saw on that end of the court against Brazil.
The below sequence highlights just how connected the team was on defence. The five-woman line-up of Whitcomb, Bec Allen, Steph Talbot, Alanna Smith and Cayla George has phenomenal defensive potential and they showed all that and more for those 24 seconds of frenzied defensive work.
Admittedly, the opposition wasn’t great, but just the intensity and passion to play as one and defend at a high level was great to watch. It was much like the Paul Gorris-led Opals Asia Cup squad last year that claimed a memorable bronze medal playing a frantic defensive game that pushed the opposition to the edge mentally and physically.
Allen led the way on both ends of the court and she is the perfect x-factor for this Opals group. She’s a relentless defender with great length who is just always buzzing around the action; fighting through screens, using active hands and getting in passing lanes. Allen tallied a ridiculous six steals and was a game-high +24 in just under 30 minutes of playing time.
She also led a balanced offensive attack. Allen was the only player to shoot the ball at least 10 times, finishing with a team-high 16 points on 5/13 shooting and 3/8 from deep. While it wasn’t her most efficient shooting night, Allen has been on a shooting tear from deep in Spain this season and absolutely deserves to be a focal point of the offence.
It’s clear there’s still things to be worked out on offence and that’s to be expected as we inch closer to a home World Cup in Sydney later this year. Scoring just 29 points in the second half and only 12 in the fourth quarter isn’t going to cut it against the best teams in the world, neither is shooting a measly 20.7% (6/29) from deep.
With four different point guards to those who travelled to Tokyo, it’s going to take some time for them to be fully integrated into the system, especially for young guns Shyla Heal, Maddy Rocci and Kristy Wallace. Heal, Rocci and Wallace played a combined 20 minutes and while Heal was the only one to score, all three will be better for the run.
The play of Marianna Tolo was a huge positive. It feels like she has been around forever, but every time she steps on the court, the Opals are better for her presence. Tolo is the perfect no-fuss player who just gets the job done and that’s exactly what she did against Brazil, recording an efficient 12 points on 5/8 shooting, to go along with 4 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 assists and 2 steals.
The other bigs in George and Smith both showed flashes with Smith running the floor well and George rebounding strongly, despite struggling with turnovers.
There’s no doubt that Serbia will present a whole new challenge to the Opals when they face off on Sunday morning at 7am (AEDT). After a clinical win over Brazil, Australia will need to go up a gear against the 10th ranked team in the world.